Bring the Family

For two weeks at the end of each summer, Kingsley Pines in Raymond transforms into a family retreat, complete with traditional camp activities and lodge-side happy hours

Stately, calm, and looking very much at home in the shade of the towering lakeside pines, 78-year-old Pat Coughlan—patriarch of the family-run Kingsley Pines summer camp in the Sebago Lake region—gazes out over Panther Pond’s sparkling water and reminisces about founding the camp 35 years ago with his wife, Joyce. Since starting the camp, they’ve operated with a fundamental belief that camp experience, even of a week or two, can significantly impact childhood development and strengthen family bonds. “It’s a game-changing experience,” he says. Joyce saysthat, by giving kids the opportunity to spread their wings, they acquire skills, wisdom, and self-esteem in a safe and fun environment surrounded by role models. This philosophy is evident in every aspect of the camp’s operation.

For most of the summer Kingsley Pines is a coed sleepaway camp for kids, but its season finishes with two consecutive six-day family camp sessions, when about 25 families from across the country and abroad check in to cabins scattered among acres of tall pines along the sloping shores of Panther Pond.

Andrea King and I arrive at Kingsley Pines’s family camp on a brilliant blue-sky afternoon in late August with our daughters, ages 7 and 4. Kingsley Pines is very much a family affair. One of the Coughlans’ sons, Carter, who is also a pilot for Delta Air Lines, greets us; their other two sons and their sons’ wives all have hands-on roles at the camp as well.

The toll of an old iron bell resonates through the pines, signaling the commencement of the next set of activities. Each family member selects his or her activity schedule for the day, moving leisurely through the forest or along the lake shore from archery to sailing, ceramics to yoga, ziplining to painting, or just down to the beach or dock to read, swim, and socialize. On our way to a ukulele lesson, Andrea and I pass our kids, who, with a gaggle of new friends and counselors, are heading out canoeing. Our youngest smiles and waves as she skips by us, proud of her newly found independence.

Although activity and meal times are fixed, there’s a relaxed discipline to the place. The Coughlans maintain that the structured agenda strikes a unique balance with social freedom; one can do as much or as little as one likes—with or without the kids, who are under the supervision of camp counselors from around the world, many whom return year after year. (The child supervision continues through the daily late-afternoon adult happy hour on the porch of the camp’s timber-frame main lodge—a chance for parents to mingle and recount the activities and fun of the day.)

The camp’s grounds and compound are densely forested yet spacious. Giant pines loom everywhere, the gleaming lake beckons, trails and coves invite exploration, and a rope swing launches kids and adults alike off a cliff into the lake. A group sits quietly making stained-glass art at long tables in a low-roofed open structure. It’s a nature-based adventure paradise for kids, but I surmise that part of the appeal of the family camp experience is that parents get to unabashedly relive swaths of their childhood, whether having been a youth camper or not. Families regather at mealtimes, which are mostly held at a tree-shaded cluster of lakeside picnic tables. An adjacent mess hall offers an impressive variety of delicious and healthy foods, including a lobster dinner one evening. In between serving and clearing, the affable counselors sit and socialize with families during meals.

Every evening, families are treated to participatory entertainment, ranging from comedic skits to a game show extravaganza to a casino night. The camp counselors, who produce the entertainment, demonstrate their multiple talents. One night, we’re given a list of crime scenes and suspects and led through a Clue-style whodunit game, requiring scavenger-hunt-style investigation throughout the camp. The last evening brings a riotously fun carnival night, with staff dancing on stilts, arcade games, and even a dunk tank where comically dressed counselors are plunged into the water by laughing kids hurling baseballs.

Post-entertainment, large campfire pits are available to the various clusters of cabins. We gather firewood while the kids help start and stoke a roaring fire. Later the kids roast s’mores and run around in the forest with flashlights, hunting for firewood and playing spotlight tag. Families eventually drift to their cabins, the last to leave puts out the fire, and save the occasional call of a loon, quiet descends upon Kingsley Pines. The wakeup bell will sound at 7:45 a.m., signaling the start to another day of activities, new friendships, and being unplugged at this pondside getaway.